History & Causes

The History of Homelessness

In the 1980s the number of homeless people in the United States increased substantially, shoving the issue into public consciousness.  The rise was due to two factors:  the economy and the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill.

A recession began in the late ‘70s putting the world into economic crisis.  Unemployment rose to double digits (twenty-five percent in some areas), and the inflation rate reached nine percent.   Economic factors are cyclical.  Most assumed we were in a deep winter with spring around the corner.  They believed that if you were homeless, you shouldn’t worry.  You wouldn’t be homeless for long.  Unfortunately, that winter stuck 15 years.

The second cause of the spike was less visible.  It was the release of the mentally ill from institutions.  In 1984, the Federal government discharged them to the streets without sufficient support systems.  Suddenly, a large number of newly-homeless people lived on the streets mental illness (schizophrenia, psychosis, etc.).  This population is still on the streets today.

The surge made everyone take notice.  It also spawned a stream of books and articles on the subject with many researching the history.  We summarize some of that research here.  Statistics hadn’t been kept on the homeless situation over time making researchers cherry-pick the fictional literature, movies, plays, news accounts, and town welfare records for information.

The findings were that homelessness wasn’t new to the ‘80s, and its characteristics had been consistent over time.  The earliest accounts of homelessness date to the 1600s, although the term didn’t exist back then.  In Early America, people referred to homeless men as “wandering poor” or “vagrants” and the women and children as “transients.”  There were few services to help them, although some towns offered welfare programs, providing cash, food, and shelter.  But in most cases, the homeless fended for themselves.  The public saw them as life’s backdrop rather than a body of humans in crisis.

The term “homeless” came into public consciousness in the 1830s to 1850s, a period when “the home” became an important part of middle class family identity.  To not have a home meant that you were an outcast, and being homeless was “your fault,” a belief that carries through today.  Back then, as many as 2/3rds of the homeless were women and children, and most were unskilled individuals, former indentured servants, and people of color.


Bloom, Alan, “Toward a History of Homelessness,” Journal of Urban History, September 2005, 907-917.

Editorial Board, “Editorial:  Homelessness in America,” Journal of Public Health, December 1994, Vol. 84, No. 12.


Causes of Homelessness

From the National Coalition for the Homeless and other below-mentioned sources.

The causes of homeless are complicated.  The primary reasons include poverty, eroding work opportunities, a lack of affordable housing, and a decline in public assistance.  We discuss each reason below.


Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. Poor people are frequently unable to pay for housing, food, childcare, health care, and education and are forced to make choices.  Housing is the single biggest expense, and they sometimes choose to live in their cars, a motor home, abandoned buildings, or on the street.  According to recent research at UCLA, forty percent of all Los Angeles County residents worry that they’ll have enough money for housing in the next few months.

According to the 2014 US Census, 14.8 percent of Los Angeles County’s residents lived in poverty that year, a category we define as the “working poor.” The poverty rate in the South Bay was even higher at 17 percent. Of the 815,000 people living in the Bay, 138,550 can be classified as working poor, a staggering number.

Harbor Interfaith’s clients come mostly from Wilmington, Harbor City, San Pedro, and Lomita, where the poverty rate is even higher (19 percent). Over 80,000 people in the immediate region need what we offer.

Eroding Work Opportunities

It’s tough to live on a minimum wage; it’s tough to live on $20 per hour.  Somebody has to wait on restaurant tables, work as an assistant for a small nonprofit, or operate a cash register at the grocery store.  The economy depends on those jobs.  The problem is, pay that low doesn’t cover life’s basic expenses, and when they don’t, the worker sometimes ends up on the street.  Of the job sectors that are growing, the lowly-paid service industry heads the list.  According to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be created in L.A. County over the next four years, most of them low-paying.  Most of the jobs added in the county by 2020 will pay below the median wage, the group said.  Office administration and food services will add the most positions to their ranks through 2020, combining for a total of about 93,000 new jobs, according to projections by the LAEDC, a nonprofit aimed at promoting business expansion in the region.

At $15 per  hour full time, the person will earn $28,000 after taxes.  With rent at $1,500 per month (well below the local average), sixty-four percent of the paycheck will go for rent, alone; it should be no more than twenty-five percent to make ends meet.

There are a limited number of jobs at the upper end of the economic ladder.  Unless more jobs can be provided at the upper end, and people become less dependent on fast food and employers on cheap labor, it will be like this for a while.

Lack of Affordable Housing

A lack of affordable housing and the limited scale of housing assistance programs have contributed to the current housing crisis and to homelessness.  According to Zillow.com, the vacancy rate in Los Angeles is 4.3 percent, which is half the national average.  According to the National Apartment List Rent Report for May 2016, the average rent for the region is $2,210 per month, the seventh highest in the country.

Decline in Public Assistance

The declining value and availability of public assistance is another source of increasing poverty and homelessness. Until its repeal in August 1996, the largest cash assistance program for poor families with children was the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (the federal welfare reform law) repealed the AFDC program and replaced it with a block grant program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (CalWorks in California).

Lack of Affordable Health Care

According to Affordable Care Act statistics, an estimated 33,000,000 remained uninsured.  If an uninsured family has a medical emergency, the cost of care could bankrupt them.  Some will lose their jobs.  The downward spiral this creates forces people into homelessness.

Domestic Violence

Battered women who live in poverty are often forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness.  Fifty percent of the cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2005).  Approximately 63% of homeless women have experienced domestic violence in their adult lives (Network to End Domestic Violence).

Mental Illness

Approximately 16% of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2005). Their illnesses interfere with the kinds of judgments they need to make to hold a job, maintain their housing, and manage their health.  Without access to supportive housing and/or other treatment services, they remain on the streets.

Addiction Disorders

Some experts point out that homelessness itself can lead to addiction.  People suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses often turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate their symptoms. According to government statistics, 80 percent of homeless people have experienced a lifelong struggle with drug and alcohol abuse.

Whether they began as addicts and lost their homes or lived on the streets and turned to drugs to numb the pain of being homeless is unknown. The end result is the same: They’re without the basic necessities of life, and they need treatment for medical and psychiatric problems as well as drug and alcohol abuse.